Over the Easter break I had the occasion to read ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’, edited by Katharine Birbalsingh. The book is written by Michaela’s teaching staff and senior leadership, describing the overarching philosophy behind how the Michaela Community School in Wembley Park operates to improve the lives of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The book [and school] are hugely controversial in the educational world due to the radical break away from accepted educational pedagogy, SEN labels, school marking policies, no-excuses discipline and much more besides. I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest in education to read it.
While I didn’t agree with everything in the book, I did find that much of what was written about resonated deep within me. While initial teacher training (ITT) tends to teach progressive teaching methodologies with an emphasis on teachers as facilitators, learning by doing, group work, a de-emphasis on textbooks and highly personalized learning, Michaela Community School (whose tagline is ‘Knowledge Is Power’), focuses on a more traditional approach. This includes teacher-led classes, greater focus on knowledge and memorisation, regular testing (& competition), reading integrated into every lesson and exceptionally high and consistent expectations of every pupil regardless of ability or background.
Don’t get me wrong, on first hearing about Michaela on Twitter I thought it sounded like a Victorian grammar school with silence in the corridors and punishments doled out for the most minor of offences, but the more I read the book the more I changed my mind and started to question everything I had been taught during my teacher training all those years ago. Since my NQT year I have read voraciously on the most effective ways to teach and promote excellent outcomes for all of my students, but the more I read, the more inconsistencies I found between the various progressive pedagogies. This is particularly true of the educational based research that always seem to offer conflicting views on the next educational fad.
So why am I writing this blog? Well, over the Easter period, not only did I read about the founding principles of Michaela, but also about what cognitive science can tell us about learning and why direct instruction is superior to inquiry based learning and how all of this ties up with how Michaela operates.
This blog is split into 3 sections:
- Part 1: Bloom’s taxonomy, knowledge and the forgetting curve
- Part 2: Cognitive Load Theory
- Part 3: Direct instruction
Part 1: Bloom’s taxonomy, knowledge and the forgetting curve
Doug Lemov (who runs the charter network Uncommon schools in the US) recently posted on Twitter that Bloom’s pyramid [of learning] is a problem. To paraphrase his argument: Teachers and senior leaders typically show disdain for the lower levels and that knowledge based questions, especially fact based or ‘closed’ questions are an unproductive way to teach. I would go further to say that in many schools, lesson observations are only ‘outstanding’ if students are seen to be accessing the higher echelons of the pyramid with a given lesson.
However, what we always forget, and to quote from Doug’s blog, is:
“The framework elaborated by Bloom and his collaborators consisted of six major categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The categories after Knowledge were presented as “skills and abilities”, with the understanding that knowledge was the necessary precondition for putting these skills and abilities into practice.”
Note that critical thinking and problem solving cannot happen successfully until the underlying knowledge is in the long term memory of students so that they can readily and automatically access it.
But how do we keep the knowledge in student’s heads? I’m sure we have all marked Year 11 or Year 12 mock exams and been amazed about how muck knowledge seems to have been forgotten. How do we make sure that knowledge gets embedded into long term memory? The 19th century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus explored the nature of forgetting, noting how forgetting follows an exponential relationship with time i.e. forgetting happens most rapidly right after learning has occurred, then begins to slow down.
The secret of embedding knowledge into long term memory (and therefore allowing it to be recalled more quickly) is to review, or test the new knowledge periodically, with those periods of review becoming ever increasingly further apart over time.
Early on in ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’, Joe Kirby (@joe__kirby), a Deputy Head teacher at Michaela, talks about the importance of knowledge, memory and testing. He says:
“Every lesson in every subject at Michaela starts with a low-stakes, open-question recap quiz. Pupils get instant feedback, correct their mistakes and improve their answers, but no score is recorded, tracked or monitored…The pupils feel motivated by learning, mastering and remembering so many tangible facts that they can find connections.”
“If we want our students to automate complex concepts, we need to ensure sufficient time, focus, attention, revisiting, application, consolidation, practice, usage and eventual mastery.”
Joe then goes on to talk about a centralised system of homework as revision. At Michaela homework is self-quizing for all pupils across all their subjects (no teacher marking) using departmental designed knowledge organisers, which…
“…specify in meticulous detail the exact facts, dates, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory. They organise onto a single page the most vital, useful subject knowledge for each unit…At a single glance, knowledge organisers answer the question for teachers and pupils: “what is most important for us not to forget?”. Everything the pupils need to know is set out clearly in advance.”
One can immediately see how pupils at Michaela, through repeated tests, revision, practise and consolidation, are moving the knowledge they have learnt in class into their long term memory such that they will be able to recall it many months, if not years later.
Part 2: Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)
Ok, so we know what we want students to learn and we know how we can review that knowledge to get it into long-term memory BUT how do we ensure that students understand what we are teaching them on the first pass so that everybody ‘gets it’ first time around?
In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. Cognitive load theory differentiates cognitive load into three types:
- intrinsic load – the effort associated with a specific topic
- extraneous load – the way information or tasks are presented to a learner
- germane load – work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge [as schemas* in long term memory]
*a schema is a mental structure used to organise knowledge.
A useful YouTube clip on Cognitive Load Theory by the Global Education Academy can be found below:
Essentially, when processing new information we use our working memory which is very limited in the amount of information it can deal with. We want to maximise the space we have in working memory so learners can process information easily and effectively. Too often students have their working memory overloaded when being taught in lessons (see podcast by Greg Ashman at the end of this blog), resulting in a reduction in the amount of material that can be successfully learnt.
An example of this can be seen in Dr Derek Muller’s ‘The science of thinking’ – see clip below. Dr Muller talks about two characters, Drew (your working memory) and Gun (your long term memory), showing how your working memory is quickly overloaded until deliberate practice and periodic review stores the new information into long term memory (as a given schema) where is can be retrieved quickly and automatically [see 2m58s to 5m28s].
So to make lessons more effective we need to make sure we are not overloading students working memory. This can be done by reducing intrinsic load by minimising unnecessary information and scaffolding new information (by hanging it off previous schemas in the long term memory), reducing extraneous load by using clear labelled diagrams and worked examples, and maximising germane load (through minimising the other two).
Head of science, Drew Thomson (@mrthomson), writes an interesting blog below on how he is using CLT to maximise his impact in the classroom, see below:
One trap teachers often fall into as ‘experts’ in their subjects is that we forget what it is like to be the ‘novice’ student learning a topic for the first time, and how easily their working memories become overloaded. Dr Deborah Netolicky does a superb job in reminding us what a ‘novice’ feels like in her blog about moving house and the mental effort it took (overloading her working memory) to carry out mundane routines that were previously automatic (long term memory) to her.
“For me, the mental work of existing somewhere new, without the automaticity that comes with entrenched habit (or, as cognitive load theorists might call it, cognitive schemata in my long term memory) was immense and intense. I felt that I was living in a fog, and existing at about 40% of my usual capacity. The simplest of tasks were arduous, time consuming, and took what seemed like excessive cognitive effort. My husband asked me what was wrong with me; I knew that the relocation had taken my working memory beyond its capacity to cope. I was moving as through wet concrete. I felt displaced.”
Cognitive Load Theory is something every teacher should be made aware of in their initial teacher training to enable them to be more effective in their planning of lessons (and in my case as a science teacher – experiments).
Part 3: Direct instruction
In a recent edition of Mr Bartons Maths Podcast, Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman), a maths and science teacher and PhD researcher in CLT, discusses ‘Cognitive Load Theory and Direct Instruction vs Inquiry Based Learning’. The Podcast is long (2h30m) but immensely interesting and can be found below and here:
If I was to boil down the podcast to a single idea, it would be the following: inquiry or discovery based learning [as often promoted in ITT] overloads a students working memory to the extent that they don’t retain the essential information you want them to learn. Much better to use direct or explicit instruction in a clear and concise manner with plenty of worked examples.
Interestingly ‘direct instruction’ of students doesn’t seem to be something that the majority of teachers have been trained in to use effectively. Unfortunately, this may be because direct instruction is often associated with ‘chalk and talk’ or ‘sage on the stage’ lessons – BUT as shown in ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’ these lessons are very enjoyable and highly effective. In her chapter on ‘Drill and Didactic teaching work best’ Olivia Dyer (@oliviaparisdyer) goes through the structure of a typical science lesson which includes; whole-class recap, individual-recap, whole-class reading [improving literacy rates], individual drill and whole-class instruction. At times I felt very uncomfortable reading this chapter, again due to the way I was initially taught to teach – but ultimately I can see why this type of teaching IS effective.
“Memorisation through drill files knowledge into long-term memory and so alleviates working memory to enable pupils to apply what they know to a new scenario…As pupils drill the knowledge we teach, their store of knowledge will become increasingly flexible, as will their ability to use that knowledge”.
Olivia goes on to say:
“Knowledge that was discovered by geniuses is not instantly intuitive to school-age children. If this knowledge is not explained to pupils, they are left to discover for themselves and end up floundering”.
As a science teacher this last sentence rang very true. How often have I clearly explained a series of tasks to investigate how potential difference varies over a series or parallel circuit, only for it to cause so much confusion that I have had to reteach it from the front the very next lesson!
So direct or explicit instruction seems to be the way forward to minimise cognitive load and effectively impart knowledge to students. However, as students ourselves I am sure we have all sat through exceptionally dull ‘chalk and talk’ lessons, so how do we do direct instruction well? Ben Newmark (@bennewmark) has written a series on excellent blogs on this:
Distilling this down to the main points:
- Teachers must be experts in their subject knowledge
- Students must have exemplary behaviour in class
- Clarity of explanation (stressing key ideas reduces cognitive load)
- Use storytelling techniques (students find stories easier to remember)
- Use repetition and interleaving
- Use clear illustrations [and worked examples]
To bring this full circle, I think many of the points raised in this blog are the reasons why the Michaela Community School appears to work so well for some of the country’s most disadvantaged students (I concede that Michaela have yet to be visited by Ofsted and do not yet have a set of GCSE results to be measured against). But it only works because no one teacher is an island, all staff are giving out the same consistent message, students have exceptional behaviour and everyone is ‘rowing together’ in their delivery of knowledge content (through their understanding of both CLT and effective direct instruction) to give all pupils at the school the very best possible start in life.
This post written by Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) on ‘Explanations: Top 10 Teaching Tips” is a MUST READ: